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The Spinal Withdrawal Reflex and Athletic Performance

While the principal focus of athletic training has been placed, traditionally, on improvement in strength and enhanced flexibility, measurable degradation in actual performance results from involuntary, protective mechanisms ‘hard-wired’ into our nervous system.

The Spinal Withdrawal Reflex (SWR) is one such protective mechanism that robs the athlete of what could be the winning difference or competitive edge.

Sometimes known as the nociceptive spinal reflex, the SWR protects the body from self inflicted damage. Stretch, pressure, or pain receptors are triggered, and a signal follows the sensory nervous system to the spinal cord. Processed in the Dorsal Horn, a reflex signal is then sent back to the same limb or region of the body accomplishing a ‘shut down’ of the offending muscle or muscle groups.

One example might be a tear in the rotator cuff of the shoulder. As the athlete reaches with the arm, a pain signal from the damaged shoulder ligament travels to the spinal cord causing a reflex ‘withdrawal’ of the shoulder muscles. Because of the SWR, and due to the protective nature of the reflex, the shoulder muscles are never allowed by this body to operate at full capacity,. The net effect is decreased range of motion and a measurable decrease in strength. This decrease is estimated to be between 1-4% of optimum performance.

Important to the athlete is that the decrease in range of motion, strength and flexibility can be reduced or eliminated by decreasing the pain modulator in the damaged tissue. That is, modulating the pain receptor can measurably and significantly improve performance and recovery. This must be accomplished without increasing the likelihood of re-injury. Medicines that ‘numb’ the pain receptor increase the likelihood of re-injury by reducing the pain signals that result from tissue damage. Local anesthetics and counter-stimulants fall into this category.

While it is critical for full recovery, to insure that the injury has proper time to heal, it is also vitally important that the rehabilitation process allows for full extension and performance of the injured area. Too many times the physical therapy recovery is inhibited by the discomfort of the person going through their exercises. We must make certain that the individuals in recovery are “pushed” to their safe limits in order to guarantee they return at optimum effectiveness. Ironically, the more strenuous the safe management of the recovery process, the quicker we can usually expect a return to activity. This time factor can be critical regardless of whether you run a dojo or are competing.

The pain receptor can, however, be safely modulated with resulting improvement in strength and flexibility using anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant topical medications such as a high-concentration methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) containing salve.

In summary, the performance-robbing qualities of the spinal withdrawal reflex can be reduced, with high concentration transdermal MSM, thereby improving flexibility, range of motion and muscular strength. Improvement by as little as 2-5% in strength, reach and range of motion could make the difference between winning and losing. It has been said that at the professional level in most sports the difference between winning and losing is usually around a 1% difference in performance. Low concentration MSM containing salves, such as Tiger Balm® are somewhat beneficial where newer products that contain high concentrations of MSM, such as Kink Ease® provide much more rapid and dramatic results.